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Drowning in despair – POLITICO


Mariam Naiem is a cultural researcher and writer. She has commented on various aspects of the war for outlets including Al Jazeera, der Spiegel, the Telegraph and others. 

“I was rewatching the movie ‘Hunger Games,’ and I couldn’t help but think how it reminds me of my life, our lives as Ukrainians,” a friend wrote to me following yet another night of relentless shelling.

On June 6, a catastrophic event unfolded in Ukraine as the dam in Nova Kakhovka was destroyed. But while some media outlets may refer to this as an “incident,” the ramifications of this event extend far beyond that — it represents an ecological disaster that will haunt the region for decades to come, and it is yet another distressing example of war crimes perpetrated by Russia.

However, the consequences of this tragedy aren’t limited to environmental devastation and violations of international law. For Ukrainians, it has brought forth a profound sense of helplessness, amplifying our realization of injustice and the fragile nature of our allyship with the West and the global community.

Take, for example, the inaction of large human rights organizations and the United Nations. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said he was “shocked” at the lack of support for relief efforts after the disaster. And to add fuel to the fire, the U.N.’s Twitter account celebrated the Russian language on the day of the dam’s destruction, almost as if to convey the message, “Your tragedy is great, but Russian culture is greater.”

“So far, it feels like the world will swallow even an atomic bomb. Because undermining a dam ofthis size is relatively the same.”

The feeling of futility surrounding our efforts is also reinforced by censorship, through social media’s “unsafe” content policies. These policies, perhaps inadvertently, act as a barrier, limiting the international community’s awareness of the dire situation Ukrainians face every day.

Instagram, for instance, often suppresses content revealing the horrors of the ongoing conflict, or highlighting the perpetrators of violence, leaving users to grapple with frustrating algorithms that prioritize mundane content and relegate urgent pleas for support and justice to obscurity. Meanwhile, in the wake of Elon Musk’s foray into Twitter, an unsettling transformation has taken place, rendering the platform a veritable swamp of bots adorned with coveted blue verification checkmarks, marginalizing ordinary individuals and drowning out their voices in a sea of automated accounts.

Another seemingly subtle but actually far-reaching blow is how Western media’s reporting of the disaster has focused on the uncertainty of who destroyed the dam. Although there is uncertainty, reporting has spotlighted the language of “both sides,” effectively equating the victims and the aggressors, under the guise of false objectivity — all while failing to highlight context and military history. One can deliver objective facts without causing harm to victims of aggression, and this pattern has been another stark reminder that Ukrainians will be doubted as non-objective and biased.

Many Ukrainians now see themselves as unwilling participants in a deadly arena in which a macabre spectacle’s unfolding. To us, it feels as though the world is anticipating yet another tragedy, as if we are simply characters in a dystopian series. Only when faced with a concoction of pandemics, floods, bombings, torture and rape can we receive help and support. And not only this, but we have to repeatedly prove to the audience that we are brave, honest, “civilized” and not wasteful. Prove again and again that no, we are not Nazis — contrary to what Russian President Vladimir Putin has claimed. When making a moral case for support, hat we are not irrational or too emotional.

It is crucial to emphasize the notable presence of individuals worldwide who express genuine concern for the well-being of Ukrainians, and strongly condemn Russia’s actions. Their unwavering support plays a pivotal role in our ongoing struggle for freedom, each message conveying support an invaluable source of profound gratitude.

Local residents push a freezer for ice-cream through the flooded area of Kherson on June 12, 2023 | Oleksij Filippov/AFP via Getty images

However, when so many blows are coming from “safe spaces,” from your allies, the frustration accumulates, and it’s hard not to let emotions seep into communication. But because of this, Ukrainian voices are easily dismissed as irrational and biased. More than once, during public discussions, I’ve had my arguments rejected because I was “too emotional” and “not objective.”

Yet, the unfortunate truth is that I am stripped of the privilege of objectivity — losing friends and the looming prospect of more casualties have robbed us of that.

In a world where perspectives aren’t crafted in a vacuum but shaped by our experiences, a purely rational approach or “gaze from nowhere” doesn’t exist. Ukrainian anger and our sense of helplessness shouldn’t be dismissed as the irrational emotions of war victims. On the contrary, it is yet another compelling reason to hear our cries, bringing about valuable and unique local knowledge and understanding of decades of needed context.

By genuinely listening, we have the potential to prevent the next catastrophe from unfolding, and the chance to spare Ukraine from new tragic headlines.

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